Sunday, March 30, 2014

Criticism and Writing

So let's say you've just spent every weekend and holiday break of the last nine months working on a novel manuscript. You've poured your heart and soul into it, the many times edited pages are covered with your sweat, tears and blood (paper cuts, anyone?) and you probably know what's going on in your characters' lives more than you do your own friends' and family's. You finally feel like it's time to transition from "closed-door" writing to "open-door" writing. You're finally ready to let an objective reader take a look at your book...

And it's terrifying. As most writers know, this is swimming next to Jaws terrifying. It's exciting yes, but there is always that horrible fear that your first reader is going to tell you that, honestly, it's crap and you should probably just burn it and go back to the drawing board. I don't think many people have actually had this happen, but that fear is always there.

So last week I let my first "outside reader" tackle the manuscript I've been working on. Though of course I wanted to hear how amazing it is when the time came to discuss the book, I wanted to know the negative first. You know, get the pain over with first. The conversation went something like this.. (very condensed version)

Reader: Well, none of your characters are very nice. They're all sort of bad guys in one way or another.
Me: I agree. In the great Raylan Givens/Boyd Crowder standoff, I'm on Team Crowder. (ahem, Justified...)
Reader: Yes, but most people probably aren't. Most people root for the good guy.
Me: Hmmm... but my main character isn't all bad.
Reader: Let me put it this way. If your book was the show Lost, your main character would be Sawyer.
Me: That's awesome! Sawyer's my favorite character!
Reader: That's not what I meant.....

At this point, I could handle the situation in one of three ways:

1) Get upset, tell my reader that they obviously don't understand me, don't understand my work and stubbornly refuse to even listen to her points about my character.

2) Become extremely anxious and immediately decided that I need to re-write my entire character so that he's no longer Sawyerish, he's Jackish.

3) Stay cool, ask questions, keep the discussion going to find out more.

A few years ago I would have definitely been choosing either option 1 or 2. Option 3 is harder. It means not being defensive and also not being vulnerable. It means being strong. Being confident.

And the result of going down that path was useful criticism. The entire point of having outside readers (for me anyway) is so that you can know whether or not the reader is getting what you want them to get from the story. It turns out that in this case, my view of the character and my reader's view of the character were different because I had edited out some key scenes and dialog that really developed said character. By the end of the discussion, I realized that those scenes needed to go back in for the reader to see the character the way I saw him. I didn't have to change the character, I just needed to reveal more to the reader. I wouldn't have known this if I had reacted impulsively to the criticism being offered.

My point is- criticism can either be debilitating or it can be constructive. It can crush you or it can make your manuscript better. It can make you weak or it can make you strong. My advice to new writers? Choose the latter.

Friday, March 28, 2014

6-word Stories!

I love flash fiction! I love writing and I love reading it. Whether or not it has to something to say about the current state of our attention spans, I find it interesting how much can be said in so little....

Please check out my 6-word short story that was recently published on Morgen Bailey's Flash Fiction blog. I hope you enjoy my story and all of the others as well.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Obsession and Writing and Alice

I can't remember the first time I read Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. I think I might have actually read Carroll's Alice's Adventures Under Ground (the early manuscript that eventually became the Alice books) before ever delving into the books themselves and this backwards way of approaching the stories definitely seems fitting. I do also remember being very, very young, watching Disney's version of Alice in Wonderland and being terrified. This terror is most likely what made Alice have such an impact on me. Instead of being able to brush off Alice as another blond poster child for Disney, I was intrigued by my terror. And that intrigue has followed me throughout my writing career.... 

I've written about Alice many times and in many different genres. My undergraduate final project was a collection of poems that began with the journey of Alice (the quintessential undergrad falling down the rabbit hole) and two years ago I wrote and presented a paper on gender role reversal in Alice at a national academic conference. Alice has been my muse in so many ways, from poetry to analysis to an unconscious underlying theme in my novels (it seems that all of my characters are always lost....). 

And then there's the rocking horse fly tattoo, of course- to deviate from the obsession with Carroll's words alone....

At any rate, whether it's collapsing under mounds of research notes or permanently marking my skin, Alice has most certainly dictated many parts of my life. And in some ways, I will always be lost, but, like Alice, I will always confront the conundrums and absurdities of life head on. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Obsession and Writing and Cheese Fries

Yes, cheese fries. Because when you're a gluten-free vegetarian there's not a lot to binge on when you've just spent 12 hours editing, forgetting to eat, forgetting to drink anything other than coffee (lots of coffee...) and just barely remembering to do the essential things such as breathing and feeding the dogs.

And, oh yeah, they're tasty....

Friday, March 14, 2014

Lost in the Amazon... Two Book Reviews

I already had no desire to ever, ever go the Amazon. While I love being outdoors, I don't like bugs and my idea of camping is staying in a hotel. The idea of trekking through a jungle for months with insects as big as cats and snakes that could eat me whole is not really what I consider to be a good time. Reading Scott Wallace's The Unconquered and David Grann's The Lost City of Z only affirmed this. I love learning about new places, but I'd rather do so curled up on my couch with a glass of wine and comforts like electricity and running water. I am the epitome of the arm traveler.

Yet in reading these two non-fiction accounts of Amazon exploration I can understand the allure. Both books are written by intrepid and accomplished journalists who, in the interest of "the story" find themselves slogging through the jungle, as obsessed as the people they are writing about. The Unconquered follows the contemporary explorer Sydney Possuelo and his endeavors to protect, but not meet, tribes in the interior of the Amazon who have no contact with the outside world. The Lost City of Z reads much along the same lines, except that Grann is re-tracing, and providing a comprehensive history of, Percy Fawcett's travels through the Amazon in the 1920s and his obsession with finding the mythical, golden city known only as Z.

Both books are absorbing and well-researched, as well being as entertaining reads. I recommend them both to anyone interested in adventure, exploration or discovering the limits of the both will-power and the imagination. For what I also took from these books was a celebration of the determination of the human spirit. Both Possuelo and Fawcett suffered immense hardship and little glamour. Their adventures were not always supported or hailed for the extraordinary feats that they were. Yet both men were driven on to explore the Amazon time and time again because of their unwavering focus on attaining a near-impossible goal. If anything, these two books have left me in awe of the possibilities that can be accomplished through faith, stubbornness and hard work.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Obsession and Writing and Justified

Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I am in love with Justified. Despite my compulsive re-tweeting and re-posting about every detail of the show, I've never actually written about it. This is probably because if I started discussing and analyzing every episode for readers, I'd never have enough time left to do anything else. (However, I can carry on a Conversation about Justified for hours. Just ask friends, family, colleagues, students and that one bartender who was subject to the very long, vocal debate my husband and I had over whether or not Boyd Crowder would Really read Of Human Bondage- and for the record, yes I think he would.)

So here, in one brief post, as a continuation of my Obsession and Writing series, is why I am crazy about Justified...

The Writing.

Bet you didn't see that one coming, huh? In all honesty though, I am obsessed with this show because of the writing. Yes, Walton Goggins is one of the most talented actors I've ever seen and yes, I wouldn't mind being Ava Crowder in another life (though not from this season) and yes, it's the one show on television that really showcases my favorite genre, but at the end of the day those aren't the reasons I've watched Season 2, Episode 10 upwards of a hundred times. The reason is because the writing, every time, every episode, blows me away. The things that Leonard Chang, VJ Boyd, Chris Provenzano, Dave Andron, Graham Yost and others can do with dialogue, direction, setting, editing, style and tone are awe-inspiring.

See, this is why I don't write about Justified. There's no way to even begin to scratch the surface of how much I love this show in one silly little blog post. However, if you ever see me around and want to discuss the finer points of Justified (say, the importance of the Saul Bellow reference in Season 3, Episode 5 or the lighting at the end of Season 4, Episode 6), well, don't be afraid to buy me a drink.

Or, we can just talk about how badass the show is, because, at the end of the day, there's always that, too.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Obsession and Writing and Benedict Cumberbatch

(In case you're curious, this post is an extension of an earlier post, Obsession and Writing, so there will be more to come)

To his fans, (and trust me, there are rabid legions of them) the words Obsession and Benedict Cumberbatch go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Whether you know him as Sherlock or that evil dude from Star Trek or that crazy happy guy whose photobomb at the Oscars was the night's most documented event, you know you love him. He's quirky-sexy, he's badass-vulnerable, he's got those eyes.

And while I chime in wholeheartedly with all of those distinctions, the number one reason I'm obsessed with Benedict Cumberbatch can be traced back to a similar reason for why I am so obsessed with writing: the characters. I love to write because I love to create characters; I love to live inside the heads of people who are nothing like me and divulge their stories. And if you're looking for an actor who can play any character, and make you believe that he is that character one hundred percent, you can stop looking once you've found Cumberbatch.

Unlike some iconic actors, such as Harrison Ford (who I'm not knocking- he was my elementary school crush!), Cumberbatch is not Cumberbatch on screen. Where as Harrison Ford is ALWAYS Harrison Ford- on a spaceship, in the jungle, in a race car, saving the world, whatever- Benedict Cumberbatch IS Sherlock Holmes or Stephen Hawking or Christopher Tietjens or Julian Assange or Smaug. He IS dying of cancer or on the run from the government or dealing with his insane brother who is sleeping with his wife. Cumberbatch becomes the characters he plays so fully that if you watch two of his films back to back it's easy to forget that he's the same actor.

Not so easy once you've become obsessed with him, of course.....

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Five and Five with Jeff Messick

I am on a roll this week! In addition to having the chance to interview Rebecca Lamoreaux (which was fantastic- please scroll down and read if you haven't already), I was able to do a quick interview with San Antonio author Jeff Messick, whose novel Knights of the Shield will be released in early 2015. It's a little ways away, but it's never too early to get the jump on awesome authors- especially one as darkly witty as Jeff is! First, here's a little info on Knights of the Shield....

Luke Graham was once a highly decorated top cop. Then, his father, also a police detective, is gunned down in the line of duty when backup fails to arrive in time. Despair burns in Luke’s heart, turning his life and career into bitter ashes. He becomes a pariah on the force. No one wants him as a partner, because they can’t trust him to have their backs and everyone knows Luke trusts no one. He’s lost all faith in his fellow police officers, himself and his God. He’s a ticking time bomb about to explode.

Then, while on a case, Luke defies procedure and pursues a killer without backup, as his father did. He nearly gets killed.

But fate isn’t quite done with Luke yet. A serial killer hunts in the city. Victims are falling to gruesome attacks and left always with the signature blue ribbon across their eyes. The ribbon is a message to a hidden agenda aimed directly at the cops, but no one can see it, except for Luke.
Saddled with a partner he doesn’t want, and tied to a hospital bed he can’t get out of, Luke nearly gives in to despair, But then, from a promise he made at Death’s door, a spiritual ancestor from Luke’s past appears and offers to guide him-for a price. In return, Richard, a 1000-year-old spirit knight, will repay his own debts of honor.

But, catching a maniacal killer is more important to Luke than helping a depressed spirit from his family line. Can Luke discover who’s behind the Ribbon Killer’s brutal attacks before Richard’s patience runs out and he cashes in Luke’s soul?

And now let's get to know Jeff a little better....

                                            Jeff Messick on Facebook and

      Steph Post: If you were forbidden to write, how else would you address your creative energies?

 Jeff Messick: Dungeons and Dragons with my kids. Or blow my brains out.  Forbidden to write?  Ye Gods!

       SP:   Do you have a particular author who has influenced your writing the most? How has she/he influenced you?

JM: Raymond Feist (Riftwar Saga) and Robert Parker (Spenser novels). Mr. Feist creates a wonderful world so many details researched and painted into the background.  His imagery is awesome and his political vision (who’s next to the throne?) is compelling.  Mr. Parker carries the torch for the hard-boiled detective novel and gets an amazing amount of description and prose out in the character’s CONVERSATIONS!  His dialogue is second to none in my book…though Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files gets REAL close.

3    SP: Do you have a set writing schedule? How often do you stick to it? (be honest!)

JM:I have four kids, so NO WAY!  I do what I can, when I can.  My wife works odd schedule sometimes, so I’ll use that time.  Weekends belong to me and the kids.

4        SP: Do you read certain types of books or genres when you are in the middle of a writing project? (as opposed to at other times in your life)

JM: I read everything I can except Romance.  I have found though that books I truly enjoy will find that style leaking into my writing. I have no problem with that though.  I consider it proper homage to those that write what I love to read.

5    SP: What is the number one feeling you want people to take away from your writing?

JM: Enjoyment.  Sit back and like a good book.  If it’s my book you’re reading and you’re liking it, I’ve done my work well.


1       Television show: Highlander:  The Series

2       Carnival ride: The car ride home.  Too many people at carnivals.

      Artist: All those that have made comics and graphic novels through my lifetime.

4       Book you read in high school or college: The Riftwar Saga and Lord of the Rings.

5       Mode of travel: Thought.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Conversation with Rebecca Lamoreaux

Rebecca Lamoreaux is one of the coolest authors I know. She is an extremely talented author in her own right, and yet always goes out of her way to help other writers- to encourage them and to help promote their work. This week, I was lucky enough to sit down and have a conversation with her about her upcoming novel Lord Hyancinthe.

Rebecca Lamoreaux

Lord Hyancithe

While most of England’s upper class young ladies are busy plotting their next ball or beau, nineteen-year-old Lady Vivian Thorpe is plotting the downfall of a traitor to her country. Her target is none other than Lord Terrence Hyacinthe, the man whose life was saved by Vivian’s own father. This very debt allows Vivian entrĂ©e into Lord Hyacinthe’s home where she sets about finding the evidence she needs to prove his guilt.
Her duty to her country leads Lady Vivian into an unexpected marriage, a kidnapping plot, and attempted murder. From being shot at to being soundly kissed, Vivian encounters every possible barrier as she attempts to discover Lord Hyacinthe’s treachery—or his innocence. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle…for both of them. Forced to discover the truth together, they don’t know who is the enemy and who is the ally. But what they do know is that someone must be hung for treason.

Steph Post: So just to start, I have to tell you- Vivian is my favorite girl's name of all time! That alone makes me want to read your book. How do you choose your characters' names?
Rebecca Lamoreaux: Ironically it was from another story I read where there was a set of twins set in the same time period as my book, and one of the twins was named Vivian. I think it was the first time I had ever encountered that name and I adored it! That was probably 15 years ago. So when this story started forming that name just felt right and since I loved it, I used it. I felt like it fit the character.
SP: What exactly is the time period setting for "Lord Hyacinthe?"
RL: Approximately 1812. Regency England time period at Lord Hyacinthe's estate.
SP: How much research did you have to do before writing? Where did you even start?
RL: I started in library, pulling out books from the basement sections for research about housing, clothing, every day events, what was expected by society, etc etc. Then I read lots and lots of novels from the same time period and did more research online. I cannot tell you how much research I did because I had to constantly return to double check information before and during the writing process and the rewrites.
SP: Your book sounds like it has so many thematic elements- romance, action, history- what genre would you classify in it? And do you consider yourself a genre writer?
RL: The book was classified as Historical Romance, and I think I am a genre writer. I tend to stick to the genre of historical, specifically regency, romances.
SP: Do you find the writing process easy? Difficult? Nerve-wracking?
RL: It's usually pretty easy! I just write what comes to mind and I see the story in my head as I go. However, I really struggle with the sagging middle of the book. Then it's nerve-wracking! And the endings are always difficult for me too.
SP: How long did it take you to write?
RL: I was writing bits and pieces, a scene here and there, on and off for probably 9 years. But when I decided to sit down and just go for it, I pulled it all together in 1 week (and basically didn't sleep). Then I let it sit for 2 months and then rewrote it in about a week again.
SP: Whoa! Crazy! What's the one thing that you want readers to walk away from you book with?
RL: Don't let a stereo type determine what you are. Don't let people assume you can or can't do something. You know your own limits and your own abilities better than anyone else. Despite what people expect you to be, it's OK to be different and yourself. And of course, not judging before you know the facts.
SP: Love it! This makes me want to read it even more..... But for now- onto the favorites! So, favorite non-Romance writer?
RL: I really like Robin McKinley - she rewrites fairy tales, and of course I am a huge fan of J.K. Rowling. I have recently also discovered some wonderful books by author Janette Rallison which are extremely humorous and really delightful. She writes young adult and teen fiction.
SP: I'm right there with you on J.K. Rowling! Next.... Favorite movie adaptation of a book?
RL: BBC's 5 hour adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" featuring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.
SP: I haven't seen it, but I love BBC productions- I'll have to check it out! And so finally, just for fun, favorite flavor of ice cream?
RL: Rainbow sherbet!
SP: That's just so you!  Well, to wrap things up, when can I get my hands on "Lord Hyacinthe?"
RL: September 30, 2014.
SP: And where can readers find out more about you and get in touch?

Thank you so much to Rebecca Lamoreaux for taking the time to sit down and talk with me. Please be on the look out for Lord Hyancinthe!